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Weather May Threaten Boaters Over Columbus Day Weekend

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(Photo Credit: Marco Oquendo/ImagesbyMarco.com) Columbus Day Regatta 2010.

(Photo Credit: Marco Oquendo/ImagesbyMarco.com) Columbus Day Regatta 2010.

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MIAMI (CBS4) – Hundreds of sailors who are planning to participate in South Florida’s  57th annual Columbus Day Regatta may get some bad news. According to Regatta Chairman Mark Pincus, the race may be cancelled due to some nasty weather expected to bring wet and windy conditions to South Florida over the holiday weekend.

Forecasters said blustery east winds will be from 14 to 17 mph, and gusts could reach as high as 24 mph.

Organizers will decide Saturday morning whether or not they’ll cancel the Regatta. If they do, it’ll be the first time in its 57 year history that it’s ever been canceled. The only time the Regatta didn’t run was after Hurricane Andrew in 1992 because Biscayne Bay was in such bad shape.

“We really don’t want to,” Pinkus said.

Most of the 100 competitors are seasoned boaters but Pinkus is worried about the weekend warrior types who may be in over their head.

“The harder the wind blows the more force on all of the parts on the boat.  And we worry about safety more than anything,” said Pinkus “If a mast goes down and people get hurt then we have an issue on the bay.”

As many as 100 sailboats of various sizes and classes are expected for Regatta on Biscayne Bay. The regatta is supposed to begin at 10 a.m. Oct. 8 on the south side of Rickenbacker Causeway and the finish line is just north of Black Ledge, about a half-time outside Biscayne National Park. The race is scheduled to resume at 11 a.m. Oct. 9 and finishes at Rickenbacker Causeway.

The Columbus Day weekend also brings other boaters to the bay.

In a gathering that is completely unrelated to the Regatta, a large fleet of powerboats always anchors off Eliott Key for a weekend of boating, and boozing on the bay. It’s often considered a hedonistic celebration featuring non- stop music, dancing, drinking in excess and a clothing optional atmosphere.

Law enforcement officers and emergency medical responders made up of park rangers, U.S. Coast Guard, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, and Miami-Dade police and fire rescue units will patrol the bay and local marinas.

However, they want South Florida boaters to think twice about going out on the water during dangerous weather conditions.

“If you are comfortable operating your vessel in those conditions, then by all means, do it. But if you’re not, if you haven’t been out on your boat in quite awhile, if your boat isn’t quite as seaworthy as you think it is, then think twice about going out tomorrow. The last thing we want is to encounter some sort of emergency out there,” said FWC spokesman Jorge Pino.

For those who do brave the wet and windy conditions, officers will be checking boats for proper safety equipment, such as fire extinguishers and lifejackets, and to make sure operators stay sober. Anyone found boating under the influence will be jailed and their boat could be confiscated.

“One of our main targets for the weekend will be boating under the influence. There will be a zero tolerance for any boating under the influence violations,” said Wayne Rybeck from Biscayne National Park. “It is very important for our visitors to remain safe and be responsible when visiting the park.”

In previous years, several boaters have been killed and scores of others injured and arrested during the raucous holiday celebration.

Officials want everyone to know the rules and stay safe.

Special regulations will be in effect over the three-day weekend:

  • Vessels must anchor in a designated area on the west side of Elliott Key
  • No more than five boats may be rafted together in that area
  • A minimum distance of 75 feet is required between rafts of vessels or between individual boats
  • No unauthorized commercial activity
  • Vessels with loud music may be cited and audio equipment confiscated

Here are some other boating safety tips:

To prevent damage to fragile sea grass beds, park rangers will patrol the Featherbed Banks area and direct boaters away to keep them from grounding. At night, some sea grass meadows will be marked with strobe lights.

  • There should be one lifejacket for each person aboard
  • The boat must have a fire extinguisher
  • Boat lights must work
  • Don’t boat while drunk
  • Watch the weather
  • Develop a float plan. Make sure someone knows how long you’ll be gone
  • Stay hydrated. Drink plenty of water
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